What Does “Think Outside the Box” Mean?

You likely hear the idiom “Think Outside the Box” a lot when someone is talking about creativity and innovation. Heck, I use it often. The literal definition is:

“… to explore ideas that are creative and unusual and that are not limited or controlled by rules or tradition”

The origins of this expression can be traced back to management consulting groups in the 1960’s that began to use a puzzle called the “9-Dot Puzzle”. The actual puzzle was first seen in a 1914 book by Sam Lloyd called the Cyclopedia of Puzzles (which you can actually buy a copy of this from Amazon – Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks and Conundrums with Answers: Loyd, Sam: 9780923891787: Amazon.com: Books.

The instructions for this exercise is – Link all 9 dots using four straight lines or fewer, without lifting the pen and without tracing the same line more than once.  If you haven’t ever experienced this particular puzzle before, make your own 9 Dot Puzzle like the one we show below on a scrap piece of paper and give it a go, without looking ahead to the rest of this article.

Did you give it a try?  If so, how did you do?  Interestingly, many people who KNOW that the solution is to “think outside of the box” still cannot quickly provide the result required by the instructions.  They might come up with something like Image 1.

This exercise results in 5 lines not the required 4. The complexity of the puzzle lies in our own brains and how we “perceive” an image.  When we see the 9 Dot Puzzle, our brain immediately creates a geometric framework using the dots as shown in Image 2 that creates a box out of the shape that the dots outline.  Then we assume that the solution to the puzzle is contained inside of the box.

As it turns out, there is no solution that follows the instructions that is achievable if you stay inside the box. The solution is derived once you realize that there is no box, only 9 dots and there is nothing in the instructions that limits you to staying inside of the non-existent box. Therefore, your solution to the puzzle starts by extending your line beyond the “box” as shown on the images that follow. By extending the first straight line out past the dot, you can now draw the next straight line, then the last two lines.

Thinking Outside the Box

The key to the puzzle is to override our brain’s tendency to constrain it to pre-determined boundary. Recognizing that this is so, we can force our brain to move outside of the boundary and be “open” to new ideas. So “thinking outside of the box” is equivalent to drawing outside of the lines. Think about this the next time you watch a young person who is coloring on a page with a pre-determined image with boundaries. As they scribble all over the place, eventually, they are instructed to “color within the lines”.  Thus at a very early age, we start training our kids brain to operate within constraints. No wonder it can be very difficult for adults to set aside this brain bias when called on to come up with creative ideas.

Here are some practical ideas for how you can put yourself into a mode of “Outside the Box” Thinking:

  • Change your thinking space – I’ve talked and written about this a lot lately but it is a tried and true method to creativity. Get out of your office and into a thinking space, whimsical if possible.
  • Get a different perspective – if you want to get truly creative ideas, include someone who may know nothing about your industry or department to brainstorm with you. Listen closely to all their ideas, the crazier the better!
  • Talk to kids – I have often said that kids are the most inherently creative people on the planet. Even though they have been instructed to “color in the lines”, they have not yet been ground into corporate decorum and mores and are free about their ideas and play. Get down on the floor and play with some kids and let your mind wander…
  • Play a game – Thinking games like Quarto are good for spurring you to strategic but non-conventional thinking.
  • Practice reverse brainstorming – can’t come up with any crazy ideas about a topic? Reverse the premise and brainstorm that instead. For example, if you are trying to determine how to get more lobby activity, brainstorm how to keep people out of your lobby. Get crazy with these ideas! Then take all of those ideas and look at the reverse of the idea to see if it generates a new idea on the original premise. If your reverse brainstorming idea is to make lobby hours punitive, then the reverse of that idea might be offering early morning or evening banking hours.

Remember that getting creative is a volume exercise. Stop trying to come up with good or great ideas and just generate ideas. They say it takes 30 ideas to get one good one, so you need to cultivate hundreds of ideas in order to have a meaningful number of potentially good ones to further work to implement. Let me know how it goes and if you need any assistance in jump-starting creativity in your institution, reach out to me at dpeterson@bankers-bank.com and lets setup a call to discuss what you are trying to achieve.  It would be my honor to assist you in making your institution more innovative.